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March 24, 2006

2006--Setting the Stage

Always Learning

by Will Carroll

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I used to think I knew everything about baseball. I've played the game since I was four years old; an odd birthday and a sports-obsessed father got me into a coach-pitch league a bit earlier than most. My pal Jason and I often try to remember what that was like, but he was only five, so his memory isn't much better than mine. We agree that we were very good. I mean really good.

After playing long past where my true level of talent should have taken me and moving away from the diamond, I still thought I knew everything. I ruled the rotisserie league that a couple guys from college and I started. When we began drifting apart from all-night sessions of entering data from the Wednesday USA Today--yes, we did it by hand on my old Mac Classic--I ended up in a league with Kevin Goldstein (that one) and Rob Miller.

My decade of fantasy dominance ended abruptly. Something was wrong. It took me a while to learn what I didn't know, figuring it out painfully from the bottom of the standings. They saw things I didn't, talked about stats I knew nothing about, and kicked me around for three years.

Rob finally suggested I buy a book he'd been reading and so when I picked up the Mann-Malin Guide that year, I also picked up Baseball Prospectus 1998. I lost again that year, but started a process of unlearning and re-learning the game of baseball, falling in love all over again. There were moments where I would throw the book across the room or hide my head in my hands, muttering, "If I only knew then what I know now."

No amount of knowledge or experience would make me a good enough player to stand on the field with the guys I watch now, but I see the game differently. This quest for knowledge, for information, has become all-consuming. Whether it's at a game, sitting next to a scout and trying to see the game through his eyes or reading the latest formula from Mitchell Lichtmann's book and trying to teach myself calculus, there's always more to learn.

Each day, each game, at every level, there's something new to see. I've seen thousands of games in my life, played in hundreds, and through the miracle of MLB's Condensed Games, I watched every pitch of every game in the 2005 season. I learned something in each and every game. I watched the way C.C. Sabathia brings the ball back. I saw how Gary Sheffield wiggles his bat differently depending on the pitcher. I watched the way catchers and umpires set up. I sat with David Pinto's defensive charts and argued about the definition of a curveball with Kevin Goldstein over the phone. I talked with GMs, scouts, statheads, broadcasters, and the unlucky guy who sat next to me in Cincinnati last June who had to listen to me complain about Wily Mo Pena being on the bench.

The game of baseball is a continual struggle for equilibrium that never really ends. Good pitching beats good hitting--except when it doesn't--and good hitting is more fun to watch. Umpires find their strike zone and pitchers begin to mess with it from the very first pitch. There's a formula out there for measuring defense and one day, not only will there be one that's more accurate, but there will be one that I can understand. I watched Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard hit their first major league home runs live and each time thought I was seeing the next great slugger. I've been fooled a million times, but none more so than seeing Zach Duke outduel Curt Schilling on a grey April day and thinking that it was more that Schilling was off than Duke was good.

Baseball, it's said, is a game of failure. I don't believe that. I think it's a mental exercise, far more than the 90 percent Yogi Berra gave it credit for. It's a metaphor for whatever we want it to be, a mirror for the soul and for what we want to be. I can look in the mirror and believe that I can still throw a fastball by Derek Jeter and hit the best slider that Johan Santana can throw me. It's a magic language that we share, our hat as an indicator that we're all Red Sox, Cubs, or Yankees and that anywhere in the world, someone can say "How about them Dodgers?" and we can have a conversation. I've met more people because I wore a dusty Cubs cap than I ever met in an Armani suit.

At our recent trip to the World Baseball Classic, I walked down on the field before the Japan-Mexico game and got a chance to have a few brief words with Yoshitaka Kattori, the Japanese pitching coach. Daisuke Matsuzaka was pitching and I was hoping to ask what the pitch was that I'd thought was a gyroball. Through a fellow journalist, we were able to decipher each other and when I began to pantomime a pitch, he immediately corrected me. Pointing to my left knee, he showed me instead to lift it slightly, loading the back leg rather than keeping it stiff or dropping too low. I instantly recognized the motion from my copy of "The Secret of the Miracle Pitch" and flipped to the page. He smiled and nodded.

In another two minutes with almost no words, Katori showed me the form he used as a Seibu Lion, lightly crouching, then exploding out sidearm. I showed him how I gripped a gyro and how I pulled down on the seams to get the spin on the ball. He corrected my shoulder tilt and, if I didn't know better, I think he told me to go warm up. Then again, my Japanese barely goes past "arigato." Arigato, Katori-san. It took him five minutes, max, to correct something I'd taught for three years and done for far longer. Just a moment of knowledge makes all the time looking worth it and the best part is you never know when it might come. When it does, it's magical.

In a year where I met my heroes, watched thousands of pitches, wrote a million words, had a beer with Peter Gammons and coffee with Peter King on precisely the day when I needed his wisdom, where I stood on the field before the World Series standing behind the cage while Jeff Bagwell took batting practice, and heard Harry Kalas say my name in that god-like rumble of whisky and cigars, I can remember one thing above all the others: Bobby Hoke, a ten year old who wants to be the next left-handed catcher in the big leagues, watched another pitcher I work with throw into a target. Steve Palazzolo, a 6'10" righty in the Brewers organization, peppered the canvas target with 90 mph fastballs as Bobby looked on. I looked over and whispered to him as he sat next to his dad, "Whaddya think, kid?"

He looked at me, eyes ablaze, and said, "I love this game."

Me too, Bobby. Me too.

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